Sunday, July 7, 2013

Getting much needed seat time – but will it be enough?



For several years now Friday afternoons have seen Margo and me “laying down laps” at Denver’s most famous road course, High Plains Raceway (HPR). Located east of the city, just beyond the small village of Byers, it really is a surprise to all first-timers not expecting to find a track this good so far from anywhere else. However, as we are fond of saying in Australia, “it’s the goods!” Taken shortly after we arrived at HPR, the freshly polished bright red Vette looks ready to go and it would be only a few minutes before it drove through the gate leading to the track.

Carved into the rolling pastoral fields that feature small ravines, there are more than enough elevation changes to ensure drivers are fully tested. The course has names for all the turns, and over the years we have come to understand the history – High Plains Drifter, Danny’s Lesson, To Hell on a Bobsled to name but a few. And of course, there’s the Prairie Corkscrew, that for those who have driven Laguna Seca and flown over the top of its more famous, big brother – THE Corkscrew – this prairie version will have memories flooding back in a heartbeat.

Very much like the sequence at Mt. Panorama, outside the Australian city of Bathurst, where Skyline proves to be aptly named as it gives drivers few clues about the upcoming Esses that then lead to the dreaded Dipper, before throwing you into Forrest’s Elbow. Perhaps not quite as severe as Danny’s Lesson, but Forrest must have surely had something very wrong with his elbow.

This past Friday at HPR was not a return visit that was accidental. Margo had not been on track since late 2012 and we had plans to follow-up our business trip to Las Vegas with a drive home via northern California. Specifically, a weekend to be spent on the circuit at Sonoma – in the past known as Sear’s Point, but also as Infineon and a lot more famous than HPR, probably on par with Laguna Seca and possibly even Mt. Panorama. It is a track that demands respect on a par with the
Nürburgring – for much of the course is lined with concrete barriers!


 
 
It’s no secret that the main attraction for Margo and me in driving on these circuits is the sheer exhilaration provided by being on track, going fast, at circuits most of us have seen only on television. Not for us a track program focused on one track where, with seat time, we would become experts but rather, a program we would build into trips around the country doing something entirely different that would then see us finding time to drop in on an event at a circuit we had not visited before – experiencing a new track for the first time is all the exhilaration we want to experience. Pulled from the archives, the picture above is from the last time Margo was on track at Laguna Seca, tackling the Esses and managing our former track Vette in fine style!

However, HPR is the track we do call home, and it is the circuit we use to re-set our brains prior to going somewhere else! It has a certain flow and a particular grace, if you like, that when you are finally in the groove, you know it. Apexes are hit precisely; gear changes take place smoothly and with minimal grinding noises coming from the rear-mounted transmission (and more recently, with minimal over-revving to drive up the clutch fluid temperatures); and braking and turn in all happening with minimal disturbance to the stance of the car.

Remember that childhood stunt where you can cause someone to fall over with an unexpected push and yet, when they anticipate being pushed, they prove immovable? Well a modern car behaves in exactly the same way – preparing it for a turn-in sees the turn executed more smoothly than when the steering wheel is jerked suddenly or the brake pedal is stamped on, rather than squeezed. Our very first outing with National Auto Sports Association (NASA) in southern California (SoCal) saw us in the drivers’ lounge listening to John Matthews telling us this story and now, six years later, we have come to truly understand the message he was conveying.

The circuit at HPR rewards drivers who can set their car up for each challenge the track throws at them; whether it’s entrance onto a long back straight, accelerating into an over-the-shoulder uphill sweeper, or unwinding the steering on entrance into a set of fast, downhill, Esses. Margo and I have spent the past two years driving our RV to events across the western states and often with a car and trailer attached.
  

Sixty plus feet of big rig cruising down the interstate at 75 mph – and the lessons learnt on the track all come back to help us out several times a trip. You drive with your eyes! Late apexes are safer! And of course, most importantly, braking and accelerating will cause weight transfers (even with a big rig) so easy on the controls when in the middle of a turn. And when the day is done, as the picture above depicts so clearly, we get to hang with the other big rigs we see in a picture taken at a popular overnight stop outside Beaver, Utah.

In his latest column of Side Glances, published each month in Road and Track, writer, Peter Egan, responds to a friend’s question about how many trips across the western states Egan has made, his first response “I’d guess maybe 14 or 15 times.” However, that evening, he tried to count them all and came up with “14 round trips and six one-way trips, for 34 total crossings of the Great Divide.” However, as he thought even more about it, the number climbed to 39.

The point was that, according to Egan, “It’s nice to have made all these trips – and lived to tell about them – but one of the problems with a lifetime of east-west travel is that you become over familiar with the most obvious routes”. As a family, Margo and I know exactly what he means and even as we try to familiarize ourselves once again with our home track at HPR, I knew that in reality, we were more familiar with the roads that connected the many tracks we visited. Somehow, we knew we would never need practice time on the interstates of the west.

How many times had we crossed the Great Divide? Two major events in our lives made tallying up such a count impossible. In the mid-1990s, we were commuting between Boulder, Colorado, and Saratoga, northern California, and then for six years we commuted between Simi Valley, in southern California, to Boulder. As a couple who late in life have grown an aversion to flying, we wouldn’t even blink at making a weekend trip back to Boulder only to do the return trip the following weekend. At best, we did 150 return trips to southern California, maybe more, and when you throw in our time in Saratoga, the count must be north of 200 return trips. For sure, there was no need for any further practice trips down the interstate!

Margo made short work of becoming familiar with the Corvette out on the track that Friday afternoon. We both had booked time on track, sharing the Vette, so that meant we would run for 20 minutes or so, swap places, run another 20 minutes and then rest for 20 minutes. During the breaks I would check tire pressures, torque the wheel nuts and take a look at the engine oil level.

Curt Ingram at Corvette Spa preps our Vette before each outing, practice or otherwise, and always makes sure to slightly overfill the Vette’s engine with oil as the big Vette isn’t dry-sumped like newer models of the Z06 and engine oil has a tendency to move around with the G-Forces even amateurs such as ourselves create on track. On this particular Friday afternoon we did manage to generate considerable lateral force but more importantly, even than oil usage, our street tires were holding up and had more than enough rubber left for an outing or two.


 
Looking back at the hours we spent that Friday afternoon at HPR, as uneventful as it proved to be, there wasn't the slightest inkling whatsoever that our time on track a few weeks later would be  eventful. The business trip that took us first to Las Vegas, as we were guests of HP for their annual HP Discover event. I am now part of their blogging community and with Margo along as my editor, it proved to be a very draining time for us both. Keynote speeches seemed to be scheduled at the crack of dawn and the “networking opportunities” stretched into the wee hours.

Driving the big rig into the paddock at Sonoma, setting up camp with the Kennys, catching up with friends we hadn’t seen for a while, left us exhausted. So much so, that for once, it was a tough time getting out of bed Saturday morning and prepping for the day’s sessions. All around us, it was a hive of activity as the following weekend, it would be a major televised event – NASCAR was coming to town. And you could tell it would be big! Margo drove the Vette Saturday, with me on track Sunday and the picture above is of Margo about to enter the track early Saturday,

Walking to the very top of the main grandstand, completely empty for our event but providing the best possible way to see as much of Margo on track it was hard to comprehend just how noisy the place would become in just a week. For these Saturday sessions, Margo elected to drive with NASA’s HPDE #1 group where she would be provided with an instructor – as a track new to her, this was routine for us as it gave Margo the opportunity to check it out with an experienced hand alongside of her.

Needless to say, by the time Saturday night came around, Margo was back in the paddock and the Vette was in the same shape as it was when she first went on track. “Any issues? Anything bother you?” I asked. “Just the downhill Esses – particularly the combination of turns 8 and 8(a), she responded. After five sessions I still didn’t feel as though I had them nailed.” At HPR, the Esses, known as turns 9(a) and 9(b) were also what everyone referred to as To Hell on a Bobsled. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to them that previous Friday.

Watching the film the week before and then going on track for a HPDE #4 session with Brian Kenny, I was concerned about the early going as the circuit wound through turns 2 to 6. As for the Esses they looked pretty routine on first glance – what I called a simple rumble strip to rumble strip, apex to apex, clickety-click. However, that was not to be the case. After a routine, albeit a little raggedy first session, I made my way to the grid, with Brian in the passenger seat.
 
 

 
As the minutes went by, I wasn’t thinking about HPR or about how many times I had crossed the Great Divide. I was thinking about how best to manage the gears I would select – the torque of the Vette was almost enough to traverse the circuit in 4th gear. But what’s the fun in that! A couple of well-executed changes make all the difference. However, I was also thinking about the change in elevation through turn 3 where I needed to precisely position the car as it un-weighted at the crest of a small hill and about making sure I tracked out all the way to the rumble strip on entry to turn 10 where the concrete wall would be only inches away.

Completing the warm-up lap, I was now on the power and getting through turns 2 to 6 felt good. Too good, unfortunately, as I went in a little too hot at turn 7 and missed a critical apex – the entry into the Sonoma's esses. Not realizing the imminent danger I was in, I tried to squeeze a little more from the steering wheel in order to get back to the rumble strip that was the apex of turn 8, but then I faced applying even more steering input, this time in the other direction for the rumble strip on the other side of the Esses. A lot of unsettling steering input - far more than the Vette was happy with - and the back of the Vette gave up, coming right around for an unexpected visit.

Remembering the story of how easy it was to push over an unsuspecting adult, the Vette was every bit ill at ease and over it went. I really thought I had caught the initial break but then it came back the other way and it was all over. With no traction, no amount of input could change the eventual outcome – a slow drift backwards into the concrete barrier. Crcuuunnnnch! Game over! The picture above of the rear of the Vette only tells half the story – however, we were very lucky to come away with as little damage done to the car.

The Vette was able to be driven back to the paddock where we loaded it onto the trailer. One more trip across the divide but this time, apprehensive over the potential damage bill. And yes, there was another big event, back at HPR, scheduled for just a few weeks later. Margo had proved to be quite correct when she expressed her discomfort about being smooth at the Esses. I should never have dismissed them as quickly as I did – they had been deployed for a reason and to those who may have caught some of the qualification runs by the NASCAR drivers, you may have caught film of at least two major incidents involving drivers making the very same mistakes.

Our enthusiasm for travelling the west and enjoying time on tracks, familiar or otherwise, hasn’t lessened in the least. The Vette will be fixed (the early prognosis is not proving to be alarming), the RV restocked with food and drink and more diesel will be added. It will be hot out at HPR – it always is in July – but the track will be familiar. There’s no further crossing of the Great Divide to plan or new westerly routes to check out.

However, it’s probably worth giving the To Hell on a Bobsled another look, even if it’s not quite the Esses of Sonoma. Being too casual and dismissive of anything to do with any track brings with it its own reward and for this family, we have been rewarded well enough already. But maybe we should give some of the track back east more than a passing glance, after all, maybe it’s the familiarity of the interstates that lay the foundation for casual driving. Could very well be the case and as Margo and I are known to have said many times, “we like variety!”

2 comments:

Robert said...

Glad it wasn't worse Richard. It is amazing how many things can reach out and bite you.

Richard said...

It was a shame it came so early in the day as I was really looking forward to many more sessions - and perhaps I should have risked a couple of outings. But we couldn't tell what lay beneath the skin and we weren't prepared to risk further damaging the car ... but it sure did teach me a lesson!